MKE Journal Sentinel

Nathaniel Stern’s “Giverny of the Midwest” makes U.S. debut
This article by Rafael Francisco Salas appeared in both online and print editions of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel


Claude Monet was in his 80s when he painted his way into eternity with a 42-foot long triptych, “Reflections of Clouds on the Water-Lily Pond,” famously hanging at the Museum of Modern Art in New York and created in the artist’s aquatic gardens in Giverny, France. Many believe that painting as an art form did not catch up with Monet’s water lily works, which numbered in the hundreds, until the Abstract Expressionists came along a generation later.

In this series of prints, Stern straps a desktop scanner, laptop and custom-made battery pack to his body, and performs images into existence.

Artist Nathaniel Stern, who grew up in New York and knows the MoMA triptych intimately, has used Monet’s artistic cataclysm and deconstructed it into a similarly scaled artwork. Exhibited internationally, his “Giverny of the Midwest” is being shown in the U.S. for the first time at the Museum of Wisconsin Art.

Giverny of the Midwest (detail) - R17

Stern does not try to overtake Monet’s masterpiece but rather makes quotations from it and reinvigorates the debates it spawned. Is realism an image or an emotion? Is an object more important than the light that reflects off of it? When is a painted mark a water lily or simply a daub of painted material?

Stern’s work is not a painting. Rather, it’s a performative series of photographic scans printed on watercolor paper. The artist strapped a high resolution scanner and battery pack to his body and began capturing the elements of a lily pond in Indiana by mucking about in it and scanning plants, water formations, earth and sky. The pieces are hung in an grid formation, further expanding the notion of deconstruction. The images are still, but describe his process of documentation, which was often in motion. We see imagery pulled into swimming tendrils as he moved the scanner through water or over an insect’s body. Abstraction and startling realism combine and allow us to experience objects, color and movement all at once. The warping and pulling of the images is filmic and beautiful.

Giverny of the Midwest (detail) - M18

And it is important to note that this work is indeed beautiful. I admit, the process sounded interesting and fun, but I did not expect the results to move me sensually as well as intellectually. Stern does not forget that his subject matter is eminent, and that nature and how we experience it, through digital processes or in paint, has unfathomable potential to excite us. His work resounds with content about how we view the world and through which lenses, whether it be technology or our physical selves.

In the end, I was seduced beyond content. It was the tensions between realism and abstraction that kept confounding my readings of the work. In all honesty I have never seen anything quite like it.

With that said, it is at times difficult to see. The scale of the work requires a distance from it, and the shallow hall where it is hung doesn’t allow the viewer to take it all in. So, while I was able to appreciate smaller moments, an overall view is hard to get at.

Nathaniel Stern’s “Giverny of the Midwest” is on view at the Museum of Wisconsin Art, 205 Veterans Ave., West Bend, through Sept. 6.

Rafael Francisco Salas is a painter, an associate professor of art at Ripon College and a regular Art City contributor.

This article by Rafael Francisco Salas appeared in both online and print editions of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel